The Portland Trail Blazers got off to a scorching hot start in their contest versus the Dallas Mavericks tonight. The starting lineup wasted no time in announcing that they were here to play and weren't going to take any "we want revenge" lumps from the Mavs based on last week's come-from-behind victory in Portland. 7 of Portland's first 8 shots came off of nice assists. Wesley Matthews tore up the Mavericks with torrid three-point shooting to start the period. Damian Lillard followed suit late in the first with a combination of threes and vicious scoring drives at the cup. Portland policed the boards well, allowing Dallas only one attempt per trip. Predictably the Blazers showed a couple of holes on defense. They didn't get back well in transition nor were their rotations crisp. Still, the offense was so fluid and confident that Portland took a 33-27 lead out of the first period.
Then, after a nice little run to start the second quarter, Portland's bench got their minutes. The offense died almost immediately. Dallas ran off a dozen points in 3 minutes. Portland's lead, at 12 with 9:18 remaining in the period, dropped all the way to 0 by the 6:26 mark. Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge closed the period hard and hot, rescuing a 4 point lead for Portland.
The Blzaers led 61-57 going into the break but seasoned observers would note a couple things about that:
1. That's a Mavericks-type score, not a Blazers one. 122 points in a game is out of Portland's comfort zone, if not out of their grasp entirely.
2. Portland's score was bolstered by 50% three-point shooting in the first half. Dallas was going to adjust to that. Even if they didn't, the Blazers--34% from distance as a team for the year--were probably going to come down.
For these reasons I was mightily impressed that the Blazers didn't come out playing the same style for the second half. I had fully expected quick, random shots early in the third period followed by an immense Dallas run with the Mavericks keeping up their first-half scoring pace and the Blazers falling further and further behind. This was not the case. The game got a little nasty, gritty. Both teams tried to get it inside. The Mavericks deserve tons of credit for getting nasty on defense in the lane, bottling up any Portland attempts in the paint. They managed to get free a couple times themselves early but Portland buckled down as well. The game became a slug-fest until late in the period when Aldridge once again opened up a flood of scoring and the Mavericks responded by hitting a couple of threes themselves. When the smoke cleared the quarter had gone 23-21 Dallas, a far cry from the 30-point pace of the first two periods. Portland led by 2 heading into the final stanza.
Unfortunately the fourth was going to go Dallas' way. The Blazers, perhaps tiring after yet more heavy starter minutes, had trouble getting back in transition again. They played well enough defensively in the halfcourt until the Mavs made a couple of passes. Those usually ended up on the perimeter and the helping-but-out-of-position Blazers couldn't recover to stop the Dallas three. Rebounding had gone up and down in the third period and continued to do so in the fourth. Plus Dallas' fresh bench players made nice contributions, as they had all night really. The Blazers fell behind by 9 with 4:00 left before a furious rally, centered once again on Aldridge, cut the lead to 3 at the 1:30 mark. Missed jumpers and a critical turnover by Matthews off a drive spelled the end of the rally and Portland succumbed by 6, 99-105.
Portland probably could have survived this game with a better bench. Portland's reserved scored 9 points cumulatively. Vince Carter scored 17 all on his own for Dallas, at times looking like Vinsanity of old. Had the Blazers had Carter (with or without the 17) instead of a motley crew of rookies this game probably goes the other direction. Not that the starters played perfectly, but really they played well enough to have a shot at winning.
An understated part of this game--and really of many this season--has been Portland's rebounding. It's disguised because overall the Blazers are an above-average-ish rebounding team but not spectacular. Sometimes, though, they'll go through spectacular stretches in games where the opponent never touches an offensive rebound and has to fight for the defensive ones. They don't stand out like dunks or threes but you'll notice that many of Portland's really nice runs are accompanied by this kind of board work. It certainly showed tonight.
Also give credit to the Blazers for being able to play both kinds of games, the quick-draw first half and the grinding second. They had lapses during each stretch but also great moments in each. Not many teams are that versatile. And really, how many times have the Blazers been completely out of games this season? No matter how they're playing they seem to hang with it. It's an unusual characteristic and a tribute to the versatility of some of these players.
But in the end it was a matter of not enough scoring punch from the bench, slow defense giving up too many easies and threesies, and staking your fortunes to another fourth-quarter rally. Sometimes those work, sometimes they don't. Tonight it didn't.
LaMarcus Aldridge didn't exactly go LaMonster on the Mavericks but he still keyed nearly every run the Blazers made, shot 11-22, scored 27, and added 10 rebounds. If he was one of the guys late down the court in transition, well...the guards probably need to pick up for him. He was Portland's rock tonight--steady, bankable, productive--which is the absolute best role for him.
Damian Lillard played a really controlled game. When he took over he seriously TOOK OVER. But then he stepped back and helped other guys shine. He was like a thunderstorm rolling through, powerful in brief spurts. When he did drive the ball Dallas couldn't do anything with him. He finished strong at the rim even in traffic tonight. Having beat his own defender handily he just toyed with the slow bigs Dallas fields. His drives set up open outside shots. It was a clinic on how he needs to establish his offense. He ended up only 6-17 as the Mavericks pressured him in the second half but he shot 3-8 from distance and drew 4 foul shots, hitting them all. He cored 19, added 6 assists and 4 rebounds, and even had a couple nice defensive stands. It was a good night for Lillard.
Wesley Matthews made his bones at the arc tonight,. It's a shame he ended up 5-12 from distance because he started red hot, knocking the Mavericks on their collective keisters. He scored 21 with 4 assists in the game. He also managed 3 steals although he also managed to let some drivers get by him.
Nicolas Batum looked slightly better tonight. He still passed up a couple shots he should have taken but at least he didn't hesitate when he did shoot. He made some nice off-ball cuts for catches and scores too...staying active in the offense when he didn't have the ball. That's been missing lately as well. He went 3-8 from the field but 5 of those were attempted threes. He missed 4, quite badly at that. His 6 rebounds and 6 assists were nice, as usual. 9 points total.
J.J. Hickson wasn't the whirling dervish terror he was when these two teams met in Portland. He managed 14 points and 10 rebounds, though, and none of the Dallas bigs went crazy. Portland sure could have used a shot-blocker in the paint tonight though. When Dallas got by the initial defender they had no fear. That's not J.J.'s fault, though.
The bench had an....interesting night tonight. Offensively they were impotent. Their biggest scorer was Nolan Smith with 4 but he probably had the worst overall game of anyone off the pines. I felt bad for him because he was actually playing more under control than he did earlier in the season, looking more poised and expending energy productively. The game just isn't there for him. Luke Babbitt hit a three but his defense is so bad it's distracting. It's like the Battle of Britain for him out there lately. He just has to duck and feel lucky to get out of any given possession unscathed. Will Barton looked aggressive with his shot but hit only 1-3. He's probably the best looking bench guy right now. Meyers Leonard can't even play at this point. Everything goes so far south on the defensive end when he's in there. The Blazers can afford that at "stretch forward" but at center it's both obvious and a disaster. When you're not in position to defend and not in position to rebound you're not in position to play. Victor Claver brought the usual energy. It's hard when he's not a threat to hit a shot, though. Jared Jeffries fears nothing but he's not a game-changer.
That's the sum total of Portland's bench right now, folks. There's not a guy among them without chronic, serious limitations. And that's all there is to say about that.
Before we turn you to the links, an observation/pet peeve. As the season has progressed we've heard more and more Blazers shouting out "And one!" when they think they've been fouled on a drive. There's nothing wrong with making noise to indicate you've been hit. Brandon Roy had it down to an art form. But he went, "AUUUGGGHHHHHHH!!!" as if an elephant had stepped on his foot while a gazelle gored him through the gall bladder. That drew fouls. "And one!" shows up the officials when they don't make the call and makes them look like compliant patsies when they do blow the whistle. Besides, with two intelligible words coming out it sounds like it requires way too much thought to be a spontaneous reaction. If I were a ref I'd say, "If you can yell that out you didn't get fouled hard enough." For those reasons, the Blazers engaging in that habit need to step up their game. Go watch some Roy tape or, alternatively, run over a moose with a steamroller and tape the sound, imitating until you've got it right. Just can the "and one" stuff because it's not going to help.
Mavs Moneyball will be salivating over Vince Carter dunks tonight!